Flagrancy of Biblical proportion

THEATER

`Corpus Christi' looks at Jesus as if he were gay

May 30, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi had its debut in New York in 1998, it was met with bomb threats and protests. In London a year later, it managed to offend a Muslim clergyman, who issued a fatwa against the playwright for blasphemy.

Now the controversial play is making its Baltimore debut at the unprepossessing but ever-plucky Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre - the same place that introduced Baltimore to David Hare's bare-it-all Blue Room and, just a year ago, Paul Rudnick's gay-creation comedy, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.

Terry J. Long, who directed Fabulous Story, is also at the controls here. According to the program, it's his seventh McNally play, but it's far from the best work by this multiple Tony Award-winning playwright.

The premise - that Jesus (called Joshua in the play) and his disciples were gay - is the kind of idea you imagine being bandied about at a gay college fraternity.

And the script, which inexplicably jumps around from 20th-century Texas to the Middle East in Biblical times, feels as if it were patched together in a late-night bull session. (One of the disciples is a hairdresser, another's a masseur, etc.)

In other words, Corpus Christi turns out to be one of those cases in which the frenzy surrounding the play proved more dramatic than the play itself.

This is not to denigrate the largely adept performances of the Spotlighters cast, headed by Tony Viglione as gentle Joshua and Brian Jacobs as a venal, self-serving Judas.

Several actors are also amusing in multiple roles, including David C. Allen as both Peter and Mary (a cigarette-smoking Texan who gives birth in a cheap motel) and Edward Zarkowski as Thomas, Lazarus and a blind, leprous truck driver.

But diverting as the performances may be, they cannot disguise the fact that Corpus Christi suffers from more serious problems than sloppy craftsmanship and fundamentalist objections - a problem that cuts to the heart of its presumed theme.

The play fosters the notion that Jesus is love, and it also rails against bigotry. Yet in the scene in which Judas betrays Joshua, McNally implicates a rabbi in a manner that gives more than a whiff of the old anti-Semitic canard that the Jews were Christ killers. If the playwright is truly preaching tolerance, this negates his message and makes you wonder if he's really trying to promulgate love, or merely to be an equal opportunity offender.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 22. Tickets are $12. Call 410-752-1225.

Coming to America

A half-dozen theater students and young professionals from Poland, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya are spending three weeks at Towson University under the auspices of the Center for International Theatre Development. The center's director, Philip Arnoult, is an adjunct professor at Towson and founder of the Theatre Project.

The visitors are working with American director Roberta Levitow and two Towson graduate theater students, Daniel Nelson and Kirsten Prather. After their stay in Baltimore, which ends June 8, the international group and the Towson contingent will travel to Poland for three more weeks, culminating in their participation in an international student festival. A video documentary of the program is being shot here and in Poland.

The cultural exchange "changes their lives in very profound ways," Arnoult said earlier this week. "All of these people know how to ride the bicycle - they all have that basic performer point of view and skill. What we're teaching them to do with those skills is to explore their own culture, to explore other cultures in the context of their lives and roles as performing artists."

In other news from Towson, the Maryland Arts Festival has been drastically cut back due to renovations to the building that has been its home for the past two decades. A four-day run of the musical revue Cole - an anthology of songs by Cole Porter - will be the sole production this summer. All film, music, dance and visual art offerings are on hiatus.

The renovations to the university's Center for the Arts are expected to cost $40 million and will not be completed until July 2005. In the interim, Phillip Collister, the festival's newly appointed artistic producer, will work with Richard Gillespie, festival executive director, to re-envision the annual event's "role and purpose." One change could be incorporating master classes into the summer season.

Show times for Cole at the Center for the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives, are 8 p.m. June 27-29 and 2 p.m. June 30. Tickets are $18. Call 410-704-2787.

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